Fast fashion is a bad look worldwide – so why do we only care about UK workers?

By Abigail Howe

This must be an age of reckoning for fast fashion. Except we already knew about Leicester.

National fast fashion retailer Quiz has dropped its Leicester supplier after allegations that factories are forcing employees to breach social distancing guidelines as well as refusing to pay the minimum wage – with those at the Morefray factory told to expect pay of £3.50 per hour.  Fast fashion giant Boohoo (owner of brands including Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal) is the biggest buyer of clothes from the Leicester garment factories, their shares dropping 18% after the news broke while influencers distanced themselves from the brand.

The state of UK fast fashion

In January 2020, Andrew Bridgden (MP for North West Leicestershire) said:

These illegal businesses are not only keeping their workers in miserable conditions, they’re also undermining the marketplace for legitimate businesses to make a living in a very difficult market. I’ve seen the buildings where these workers are and it is shocking: the buildings are condemned – if there was a fire there then hundreds would die, and this is Britain in 2020. It’s a national shame.

In February 2019, an Environmental Audit Committee found that the Modern Slavery Act was not enough to prevent exploitation at UK clothing factories. The government, in fact, refused to implement their recommendations, which ranged from environmental guidelines to human rights safeguarding measures.

While the government was apparently unwilling to act, social media lit up with shock. But this isn’t just a British issue.

Whether it’s the 2013 Dhaka factory collapse, 2008’s Panorama episode ‘Primark: On the Rack’ or BBC Three’s Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, we know of the appalling conditions in garment factories across the world. We know that children are working long hours. We know that conditions are unsafe and pay is low. Workers, no matter which country they live in, have the right to work safely and be compensated appropriately.

Out of sight, out of mind

However, it’s often out of sight, out of mind. Global Labour Justice studied conditions across Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, countries which, according to a parliamentary report, produce “most of the garments sold in the UK.” It found that physical abuse, sexual harassment, poor work conditions and forced overtime were all commonplace in garment factories due to the demanding targets set by brands.

One of Philip Green and the Arcadia Group’s main suppliers is a company based in Bangladesh. Fashion Revolution found that 60% of Bangladeshi garment workers have faced sexual harassment, yet the President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has insisted that sexual harassment simply does not exist in garment factories.

Some 94% of Cambodian factories investigated have violated overtime regulations. It is a harrowing thought, therefore, that garment manufacturing accounts for 80% of national export earnings, employing more people than any other Cambodian industry.

Complaining about the catastrophe on our doorstep is a step in the right direction. But there are equal, and even far worse, atrocities being committed just down the road.

How is fast fashion damaging the environment elsewhere?

Beyond labour abuses, the poor quality of garments means that they end up being dumped quickly. The fashion industry is, after all, the second biggest polluter after petroleum — every second, a lorry-load of used clothing is incinerated or thrown into landfill. Over a year, that’s enough to fill the Sydney Harbour. And which countries are affected? The same countries which produce these clothes in the first place.

What’s more, clothes don’t just cause environmental issues at the end of their lives, but form part of a far more long-lasting, damaging chain that fast fashion makes up.

The Aral Sea has become “more of a puddle now” as water is diverted to irrigate Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, with the fashion industry being the second-largest consumer of the word’s water supply. Furthermore, textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water; what wastewater is left behind typically is dumped into ditches, rivers or streams. In China, 70 percent of rivers and lakes are contaminated by wastewater from the textile and dye industry.

This is clearly an environmental justice issue, impacting the same communities which are also exploited as workers.

Dr Mark Sumner has noted that the current fashion model means that consumers in the UK “are getting pleasure and enjoyment from fashion and that is coming at a cost to workers and the environment in exterritorial, overseas production routes as well as agriculture.” While climate change will eventually impact us all, for the moment the impact of fast fashion upon the environment can be reduced to out of sight, out of mind.

What does the future hold garment workers?

Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled. Given that 60% of clothes are never even worn, it casts a troubling shadow over the future of the textile industry. And although the fashion industry’s contribution to global warming may not be immediately visible in the UK, it will reach us eventually. Even if UK shoppers cannot manage empathy for others, let’s at least be pragmatic about our own futures.

Cheap, unsustainable clothing was past its sell-by date long before the Leicester garment factories controversy arose. Once you start looking at the fashion industry’s impact, its glamorous appearance soon becomes as transparent as one of their poor-quality dresses. In a world where Topshop features 400 new styles every week and Zara releases 20,000 designs each year, it’s no surprise that quality is sacrificed for quantity.

But this goes beyond an unravelling seam or cheap fabric. Instead, the dignity and quality of life of factory workers are given up in exchange for a greater market share or to eek some extra cash from narrow profit margins. We have to act — for Leicester and the rest of the world.

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